Federal student aid to face large cuts, students worried

Ninety percent of Marquette students receive some sort of financial aid, which gives the university a vested interest in current political turmoil that may affect federal aid or government education funding.

Unless the Congressional Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction comes to agreement on how to achieve more than $1 trillion in budgetary saving, a majority of government-sponsored discretionary programs will see a reduction in their federal funding starting Jan. 2, 2013, said Rana Altenburg, vice president of Marquette’s Office of Public Affairs. These across-the-board cuts are sequestration – a fiscal policy created to ensure Congress agrees on a means to cap spending.

These cuts are projected to affect more than 200 students’ financial aid packages at Marquette, according to the Office of Public Affairs. This includes federal work study, Pell grants, Supplemental Opportunity Educational Grants and TRIO programs. Altenberg said Marquette’s Educational Opportunity Program, which has TRIO program funding, is in serious jeopardy of cuts.

Marquette’s Office of Public Affairs exists to actively lobby and represent the university’s interests to elected government officials. Altenberg said one of its biggest concerns is the future of financial aid including scholarships, grants, student employment and low-interest loans.

All of these programs provide grants to higher education institutions to help low- and middle-income undergraduate and graduate students complete or pay for postsecondary education.

“Because most of education funding is discretionary – meaning it’s not mandatory and doesn’t have to be funded, with the exception of a few programs – they’re the easiest to cut because they (Congress) are able to cut them,” Altenburg said.

A substantial number of Marquette students receive federal aid. According to the Office of Public Affairs’ website, 1,567 Marquette students received almost $6.3 million in Pell grants, and 545 students received $1.24 million in SEOG funding for the 2011-2012 academic year.

According to U.S. Senator Thomas Harkin’s (D-Iowa) report, “Under Threat: Sequestration’s Impact on Nondefense Jobs and Services,” sequestration will have a significant impact on financial aid for college students both nationally and locally. For the 2013 fiscal year, 51,577 fewer students are expected to receive federal work study nationwide. In Wisconsin alone, 652 students will not receive funding through federal work study because of the cuts. Nationwide, 110,543 fewer students are expected to receive Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants. Of these students, 863 are Wisconsin students.

Federal Pell grants, which are distributed to students with the greatest need, are exempt for this 2013 fiscal year but will be subject to the “across-the-board” cuts for the next 2014 fiscal year. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s fiscal year 2013 budget, more than $36 million is allocated for the distribution of Pell grants. Next academic year, this proportioned amount will be subject to a substantial reduction. This could affect the roughly 20 percent of Marquette students who receive Pell grants, according to the Office of Public Affairs.

In a student forum last Tuesday, University President the Rev. Scott Pilarz expressed his own concerns about the uncertain future of financial aid. He said Marquette is “deeply committed” to distribution of federal aid to its students, which is why $100 million of unfunded aid is given to students each year.

“It keeps me up at night,” Pilarz said. “Quite honestly, it is one of the things that literally keeps me up at night – worrying about what might happen if Congress starts to roll back federal financial aid.”

The potential cuts in federal spending will be systematically and evenly applied to almost all programs, regardless of precedence or importance over the next ten years. Non-defense programs and discretionary spending will be cut by 8.2 percent, and mandatory spending will be cut by 7.6 percent, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget’s Report Pursuant to the Sequestration Transparency Act of 2012.

“The concept behind sequestration is that it would be so bad – you would want to reach a deal,” said Mary Czech Mrochinski, an Office of Public Affairs staff member.

The Office of Public Affairs estimates that the window for Congress to amend the federal budget before the cuts are approved is about two months – from the end of the elections on Nov. 6 to before Jan. 20, the day of the presidential inauguration.

University administrators are not the only parties concerned. Students are also wary of how politics can potentially affect their education finances – especially since the failure to compromise on a budget last November has led to across-the-board cuts on all government spending, including financial aid.

Kevin Dolan, a junior in the College of Communication, applied for a campus job during his first two years at Marquette but was denied jobs both times. He only just received a federal work study grant this year and is worried these government cuts to financial aid could negatively affect his and other students’ employment statuses.

More than 1,000 Marquette students, faculty and parents signed a student aid alliance petition to confront this problem last year, Mrochinski said. Marquette was among the schools that had the highest participation rates.

Despite common perception, Altenburg said student federal aid is not a partisan issue in Congress – both Republicans and Democrats support educational programs.

“It’s hard not to support education – the question is: at what level and for whom?” Altenburg said.